Rote memorization is an inefficient way to learn. Just retaining a single formula can mean pounding the same information into your skull dozens of times. If your computer hard drive had this accuracy, you’d probably throw it out.
Unfortunately, we’re stuck with our brains. The good news is that we don’t need to learn by memorization. The vast majority of information is better stored in our head using a completely different system—learning through connecting ideas together.
1. Get Creative with Metaphors
Connect ideas together by relating them to something you already understand. Relate complex physical equations to their real life counterparts. Imagine a derivative as the speedometer on a car. See a binomial equation as a game of Plinko.
You can do the same thing with less technical subjects. When I read the book The Prince, I related Niccolò Machiavelli’s thoughts on politics to my own social life. If you relate an abstract example to something more commonplace it’s easier to understand. You’re effectively creating a bridge between what you understand intuitively and the things you struggle with.
2. Draw a Diagram
Create diagrams showing the relationships between ideas. This is a manual way you can create connections. The importance is that you explore as many different ways to connect ideas as possible, not just repeating the same diagrams. If you have varied connections, then if you happen to forget one, you’ll remember the ideas through another.
Diagram ideas based on time and place, author, or other similarities they have. If you’re learning a comprehensive subject, like chemistry or physics, diagram how all the ideas relate. Many equations are counterparts or derivations of each other, so you can learn complicated formulas more easily by connecting them to simpler forms.
3. Use the “Like, But …” Method
Another way to link ideas is to relate one piece of information to another, noting their difference. “It’s like this, but it has that instead.” Using this method of understanding can link ideas together, even if you don’t have a perfect metaphor or relationship to diagram.
Examples: Confucius was born around the same time as Socrates, but lived in ancient China. Amortization is like an asset version of a loan payment, except there’s no interest. Acceleration is like gravity, but in any direction.
The relationships don’t need to be perfect. You aren’t trying to build a perfectly accurate map of the surrounding, just a sketch. Creative connections, even if they are only 80 to 90 percent accurate, are more memorable than dry connections that have 100 percent accuracy. If you understood the subject when you were learning it, then the specific accuracy of a metaphor won’t be as important as the connection itself.
4. Imagine Your Ideas in a Visual Format
When I was learning computer programming, I often tried to connect the abstract concepts of variables, functions, or polymorphism into more vivid, visual descriptions. If a variable becomes a jar or a function becomes a crazy pencil sharpener, you’re more likely to remember the relationship later.
If you’re a non-visual learner, you can apply the same strategy to your other senses. It may be more meaningful for you if you mentally attach sounds or sensations to the ideas you’re trying to store.
5. Think of How You’d Explain It to a Five-Year Old?
Another trick to connect ideas together is to connect a very difficult idea to something you understand easily. If you had to teach whatever subject you’re learning right now to a five-year-old, what would you do?
This exercise forces you to simplify. Instead of dealing in abstracts you now have to deal in concretes. I’m not suggesting you can teach senior level chemistry courses to a first-grader. However, if you get in the habit of simplifying things for yourself, it will be easier for you to understand it yourself. Teaching something is often the best way to learn it.
When you juggle ideas only at an abstract level, you make fewer connections. It’s like trying to weave a basket using two ten-foot pole rods while the basket is suspended off your roof. Make connections and bring the basket down to earth so you can grab it with your hands and make more tangible connections.
6. Channel Your Childhood Creativity
Bring back the same crayon-box imagination you had when you were five. Back then, nobody told you it was incorrect to link weird and bizarre combinations of ideas together; you did in naturally. However, at some point the system encouraged you to conform, so you started asking what the correct answer was, rather than the most interesting answer.
Don’t give up your critical thinking; just enhance it by allowing yourself to explore ideas more thoroughly before you decide what they look like. What would happen if you inserted a minus sign in the middle of your physics equation? If you had to explain the formula in terms of real world objects, how would you do it?
These aren’t time-wasting exercises, they’re keys to better understanding. The smartest people I’ve encountered are often the people who have the easiest time generating creative descriptions of whatever they need to learn. If you didn’t have to review every idea five to ten times before learning it, then a creative approach would probably save you time, rather than waste it.
7. Learn in a Group
Most memorization is a solo pursuit. But connecting ideas doesn’t have to be. If you get several people together and work to try to explain a subject to each other, you get the benefit of several brains forming connections to the same topic. This is applying the wisdom of brainstorming to help you learn faster.
As with brainstorming, accuracy isn’t as important as volume. You aren’t trying to remember every specific connection you make, so it doesn’t matter if they aren’t perfect. You are, however, trying to better understand and remember the subject itself, so group exercises where you share ideas are great for this purpose.
When is Memorization Necessary?
Like all rules, the practice of connecting ideas has places where it doesn’t work terribly well. When you need to remember bulk information, with no particular meaning, sometimes rote memorization is the best way to go. Human brains are meaning-makers, and learning through connections is an approach built off that function. So when you have to understand copious amounts of information that have no logical relationship, you may struggle to form connections.
I hesitate to say this, however, because 95 percent of information isn’t meaningless, otherwise you wouldn’t bother learning it. There is a pattern, and if you invest some time in finding it, you greatly increase the chances it will stick to the inside of your skull.
Originally published on ThinkSimpleNowUpdated on February 23, 2011